Well I hope you can all see where this one is going…..
It’s Panto Season again and a really good opportunity to visit the Theatre Royal Prompt Book series we have here (MS 2899). The Theatre Royal was a venerable institution operating in New Street from 1774 to its final demolition in 1956. The special collection consists of play texts and prompt books dating from mid to late 19th century. The collection was formed by successive theatre managers and finally came to the library in 1935. There is a plethora of pantomime plays in the archive, some familiar, some not so.
Pantomime as a dramatic form dates back to classical theatre, well, doesn’t everything!
Oh, no it doesn’t! Oh, yes it does! …….. ermm, where was I?
The Greek word ‘panto’, meaning ‘all’ and ‘mimos’, meaning ‘imitator’ took on the meaning, first as a group who ‘ imitated all’ with song and music to eventually encompass the event itself. The Greeks and the Romans liked their pantos, lots of tragedy, comedy and sex, a bit like Eastenders if you cut out the comedy.
Pantomime as we know it today is a Christmas pudding mix of lots of different ingredients: the commedia dell’arte tradition from 16th century Italy, along with European and British traditions like 17th century masques, mummers plays from the English folk traditions of the Middle Ages, the giddy larks of the Lord of Misrule from the revels of Saturnalia up to the Tudor fancies of Twelve Days of Christmas when the natural order becomes reversed and, hence, the gender role reversal of ‘slappa my thigh, Dandini!’ becomes a tradition.
By the 19th century, the English traditional pantomime genre was based on European fairy tales and English literature and nursery rhymes, with a fast paced slapstick element of ‘Harlequinade’ thrown in for good measure. The ‘Harlequinade’ was the plot within the plot that featured the lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, chased by Pantaloon, the grumpy potential father –in –law. No nodding off here please, you have to have your wits about you when watching the show!So, we have the now familiar favourites, ‘Cinderella’, ’ Dick Whittington’, ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ along with the not so familiar…. ‘Jack and Jill (ok so far) or (alternative title) King Georgeous IV., The Belle, The Dell, The Spell and The Well’. Or, how about, ‘Number Nip or Harlequin and the Gnome King of the Giant Mountain’ and my own personal favourite, ‘Childe of Hale or the King of the Red Noses & The Liver Queen’. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
So the next time you shout, ‘He’s behind you!’ spare a thought for the countless formative years of the tradition that is panto and the poor, maligned panto villain who is genuinely misunderstood ….. Booo! Hisssss!
Judy Dennison December 2014